'We're just in awe': Tuktoyaktuk unveils monument to community's past

Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., has longed for a public sculpture of its own. On Wednesday, after a series of conversations and 3 months of on-and-off carving by four artists, the hamlet unveiled their first historic cultural sculpture.

5,000 pound marble statue features animals significant to the community and the faces of past leaders

Tuktoyaktuk a small coastal hamlet in N.W.T., has longed for a public sculpture of its own. On Wednesday, after a series of conversations and four artists carving over a period of three months, the hamlet unveiled their first historic cultural sculpture. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Around the world, Tuktoyaktuk is known for its culture and for its mastery of reflecting that culture in stone carvings, beadwork and other traditional crafts.

But within the small coastal hamlet, the community has longed for a public sculpture of its own.

Recently — with the help of Parks Canada, the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation and four Inuvialuit artists — that wish came true through the Tuktoyaktuk Carving Project.

On Wednesday, the hamlet unveiled a historic cultural sculpture that honours previous leaders.

Derrald Taylor Pokiak, the lead carver for the project, worked with elders in the community to design it. Artists Ronald Nuyaviak, John Taylor and Derek Taylor were also involved. 

Clockwise from top left: Derek Taylor, John Taylor, Derrald Taylor Pokiak, Inung Nuyviak. All four artists helped carve the community's newest monument. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

"We're just in awe with it," Pokiak said. "We're really happy with what we had done, 'cause it was such a short time."

The sculpture was made from a grayish marble and started about 6 feet high and 7,400 pounds, Pokiak said. In the end, after the stone cutting, it's now about a 5,000 pound piece.

It features animals significant to the community, like caribou and a beluga whale, which the community use for sustenance.

It also has a polar bear, with the face of the first leader of the community, Mangilaluk. Stories of the leader from elders hold that the leader was a shaman who could shape-shift into a polar bear, Pokiak explained.

The statue also represents four other past leaders of the community — Eddie Gruben, Persis Gruben, Thomas Umoak and John Steen. They were chosen because they represent different points in time and have influenced the shape and culture of the community.

"That was a story from the elders that I heard," Pokiak said.

"I'm hoping people will recognize the faces."

The artists worked on the art piece for about three months, Pokiak said.

'History of people are not visible enough,' says former IRC chair

Nellie Cournoyea, former N.W.T. Premier and former chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, also played a significant role in bringing the sculpture to fruition.

She has trumpeted the sculpture's importance since the beginning.

"It does represent what people will find most important — the environment and the animals that represent the support of survival," she said.

"We're very respective of past leadership and past involvement and how we got here and the struggles and challenges that people went through to continue ... to survive."

She said she hopes the monument will have a visible impact on people in the community and will help people reflect on the community's ancestors.

Lydia Elizabeth Lesley Persis Steen Gruben with the carving of her great grandmother Persis Gruben. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

"Tradition and culture and the history of people are not visible enough," she said.

"I always believe there should be a clear route and a real basic background so people feel wonderful about who they are and where they come from."

Only 50 people could attend the unveiling on Wednesday due to safety precautions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by Amy Tucker, based on interviews by Loren McGinnis and Kate Kyle